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Encyclopedia of Life

The Encyclopedia of Life project was announced (1). Wow, this sounds very exciting!


When I was a little kid, I used to have a subscription to Safari Animal Wildlife Cards —a mail order service suspiciously similar to those recipe card subscriptions from the 1970s. Nice, easy to read, tabular descriptions, color-coded habitats and maps, with, of course, lovely color pictures. Oh, yes! How I wanted to collect a card for every single animal species, to look over, read, absorb…

Needless to say, the subscription didn’t last forever, only for a few years O:-) and, heh, after filling several trays of cards. Nor did I experience a long-term career in biology. But the advent of the Web roused an old fantasy: To develop an online library detailing each animal, each plant, each mineral, each naturally occurring thingie. Cross-referenced to other sites, other publications, even differing, conflicting viewpoints, if relevant and respectfully presented. Chock full of gorgeous, useful pictures, drawings, charts, clear descriptions, sound files (bird calls!), video clips, and, and, and.

Let’s return to recent reality, with the Encyclopedia of Life, a potentially useful and terrific undertaking. Because there’ll always be a special place in my heart for natural history, and because I’m Deadly Question Grrl, I’m filled with both interest and skepticism about the EoL.


The Encyclopedia of Life will be a freely accessible site. The organizers claim that it’ll become usable by the middle of 2008 (1). However, they estimate it’ll take about a decade to input information on all of our planet’s species.

In addition, the EoL aims for a wiki-esque, moderated system (2). I wonder how disputes will be handled? (“Do you prefer a side of cladistic or phenetic systematics with your order?” —a question which semi-humorously sprang up during a botanical taxonomy course.) The home page claims they’ll accept contributions “from scientists and amateurs alike.” Will there be the exclusionary oligarchy, often seen in academia? (True, that attitude can be found in any field.) Or will it be more open like Wikipedia?

Let the interrogation continue!

They claim a desire to become “an ecosystem of websites,” which tickles my intellectual fancy. I wonder how cross-referencing to other sources will work? For example, would a bird entry refer to relevant webpages at, say, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology? Or, how about links to online identification keys? How judicious would they be about the selection of references and bibliographic links?

They wish to document the 1.8+ million species. Daunting! But, with collection obsessive in mind, I wonder how they’ll also describe (or, perhaps more sanely, list or refer to) the variants, varieties, subspecies, and cultivars?

Speaking of (technical) obsession, I wonder how navigable and accessible the site will become? They haven’t fleshed out an accessibility policy but EoL’s FAQ mentions future support for mobile devices. The home page has a Flash video. But what if you don’t or can’t have Flash? Have poor vision, movement disabilities, or hard of hearing? Will there be a decent glossary, searching, etc.? There are certainly no-brainer techniques they could implement (e.g., sensible use of alt and title attributes, abbr tags, breadcrumbing, and so forth), but giant sites (and networks of sites) are notorious for being inconsistent, awkward, slow, or confusing. Again, daunting.

I wonder if they’ll survive? Look at the All Species Foundation (3), which stopped activity in 2004. Sad, considering how respected organizations participated, including the National Science Foundation and the California Academy of Sciences. I hope the EoL won’t ignore currently inactive resources, seemingly redundant ones like WikiSpecies, or the many other online encyclopedias. No point reinventing the wheel of research, when it’s unnecessary.

I wonder if they’ll do more than survive? (4) As an information (not merely data) provider and reference authority, I wonder if they’ll grow to have as big an influence and as high usage as Wikipedia or even Google? If funding shrinks, will they be able to maintain momentum, either by professional biologists or volunteers?

In response to questions about how the Encyclopedia of Life will do better than previous online biology resource, they cite modern search engine and mashup technology as the keys. Sounds reasonable to utilize such tools, but I hope a dependence on them doesn’t become limiting or overwhelming to users. The bottom line, as with most projects (software or otherwise), is that a human (or a group of them) has ultimate authority and responsibility over the content, and how it’s presented (language-wise, not necessarily layout). Don’t disregard that.


The EoL is, like most of the Internet, under construction. Their FAQs respond to many questions earnestly. Some of the responses seem vague, sometimes a bit heavy on the hand-waving jargon-speak. Policy development (for use, contribution and access) can be tricky, and should be as well considered and constructed as the technical aspects of any site. Although, keep in mind that they are literally starting construction.

There are a few demonstration pages, available in both HTML and PDF. Unfortunately, there’s hardly any webpage interaction, not even the links. The entire entry content consists of a single image. Try reading that with a PDA or screenreader. On the other hand, actual text is presented only in descriptive popups, which appear while mousing over the page sections. Useful definitions, but difficult to read. Honestly, the demos ought to be real webpages. It’s okay if the links haven’t been all verified, we accept graceful degradation in many forms :-D; they should at least have some expected behavior.

A particularly ambitious aspect of each entry is the Novice to Expert View scale in the sample entries, located on the left side above the Table of Contents. Selecting a view level will dynamically change the content displayed in the central column, as well toggle the Expert References section. Check out the novice and expert polar bear pages, as examples. The demos show four levels of viewing, but will there be a demand for such a range? What determines the middle ranges of granularity, anyhow? Would even having only two (novice and expect) levels for every entry be excessive data and effort? Perhaps allowing varying levels of information from species to species would be a more reasonable and flexible approach, depending on the level of contributions and resources.

In addition, the EoL provides detailed lists of sources and partners (including the Wikimedia Foundation). It’ll interesting to see who else joins the project, or leaves. (Ideally, the latter would occur as mutually beneficial and improved mergings.)

A couple nights ago I was a bit bleary while Simon told me about the EurekAlert article, and misread the title as “World’s leading scientists renounce Creationists’ Encyclopedia of Life.” Ugh, the intelligent design people wasting resources and spreading misinformation, yet again —Good thing sensible folks are against it, but it causes a drain away from worthwhile endeavors —D’oh! That’s not what the article actually says. Whew. Hey, this really looks intriguing… And that’s what sparked this post. Odd where writing ideas come from, in this case, a near misinterpretation followed by keen curiosity.

I look forward to watching and reading the Encyclopedia of Life. I hope this ambitious project succeeds and grows well. (Cue Star Trek: The Next Generation opening theme.)


  1. World’s leading scientists announce creation of ‘Encyclopedia of Life’“, EurekAlert, 8 May 2007.
  2. Encyclopedia of Life,” Wikipedia.
  3. E.O. Wilson’s Encyclopedia of Life gets over $50M in funding,” Mark Frauenfelder, Boing Boing, 9 May 2007.
  4. New online encyclopedia to catalog all the world’s species,” John Timmer, Ars Technica, 9 May 2007.

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